The Lake County Council's recent actions on employment issues were very revealing. The council acknowledged it has little to no control over individual officeholders' hiring practices, and the council urged the commissioners to join the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission.
On Nov. 22, the council let stand the Lake County Board of Commissioners' recent veto of an early retirement program that would have paid older government employees $10,000 to get them off the county's insurance.
The theory behind that plan seemed to make sense. Three years ago, Lake County began cutting expenses by encouraging employees age 65 or older to take retirement, thus getting them off the county's insurance and reducing the payroll as well — a double bonus.
But some council members now fear that too many officeholders would either hire new employees to fill those positions or would rehire the retirees, saying their expertise is too valuable to lose.
Second, in urging the commissioners to join the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission, the council acknowledged the value of ethics training for public officials and their employees. That action also highlights the diluted accountability in county government.
If a city's department head or an employee does something egregious, the mayor can hold that person accountable. At the county level, many department heads are elected officials in their own right, so that same accountability doesn't exist.
That's true regardless of whether the elected official engages in hiring practices that run counter to the goal of reducing the county's payroll or whether that official acts in a manner that is unethical but not illegal.
What the County Council also might have done at that November meeting — and should do this month — is to urge the Indiana General Assembly to finally restructure county government so more accountability is put in place. Ideally, that would include having a single elected county administrator instead of three commissioners — cutting costs and improving accountability — and making many of the current elected officials become accountable to the county administrator instead of being elected.
Those reforms have been recommended not just by the bipartisan Kernan-Shepard report but also by others eager to bring the basic structure of county government out of the 19th century and into the 21st.
Local government reforms are the last major item on Gov. Mitch Daniels' original to-do list. Enacting them would tackle some of the employment issues Lake County has been plagued with for so many years.